Carmen Mercedes McRae (April 8, 1920 – November 10, 1994) was an American jazz singer. She is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century and is remembered for her behind-the-beat phrasing and ironic interpretation of lyrics. McRae was inspired by Billie Holiday, but she established her own voice. She recorded over sixty albums and performed worldwide.
Portrait by Zita Cypress, c. 1949
|Birth name||Carmen Mercedes McRae|
|Born||April 8, 1920|
Harlem, New York, U.S.
|Died||November 10, 1994 (aged 74)|
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
|Genres||Jazz, vocal jazz, traditional pop|
|Labels||Decca, Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream, Atlantic, Blue Note, Concord, Novus|
|Associated acts||Jack Pleis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Billie Holiday, Norman Simmons, Cal Tjader, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck|
Early life and educationEdit
McRae was born in Harlem, New York City, United States. Her father, Osmond, and mother, Evadne McRae, were immigrants from Jamaica. She began studying piano when she was eight, and the music of jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington filled her home. When she was 17 years old, she met singer Billie Holiday. As a teenager McRae came to the attention of Teddy Wilson and his wife, the composer Irene Kitchings. One of McRae's early songs, "Dream of Life", was, through their influence, recorded in 1939 by Wilson’s long-time collaborator Billie Holiday. McRae considered Holiday to be her primary influence. She was a lifelong active Democrat.
In her late teens and early twenties, McRae played piano at a New York City club called Minton's Playhouse, Harlem's most famous jazz club, sang as a chorus girl, and worked as a secretary. It was at Minton's where she met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Kenny Clarke, had her first important job as a pianist with Benny Carter's big band (1944), worked with Count Basie (1944) and under the name "Carmen Clarke" (having married Kenny Clarke) made her first recording as pianist with the Mercer Ellington Band (1946–47). But it was while working in Brooklyn that she came to the attention of Decca’s Milt Gabler. Her five-year association with Decca yielded 12 LPs.
In 1948, she moved to Chicago with comedian and impressionist George Kirby, with whom she had fallen in love. At the end of the relationship, she worked as a pianist and singer at the Archway Lounge. She played piano steadily for almost four years at a number of clubs in Chicago before returning to New York in 1952. In Chicago she developed her own specific style. Those years in Chicago, McRae told Jazz Forum, "gave me whatever it is that I have now. That's the most prominent schooling I ever had."
Return to New YorkEdit
Back in New York in the early 1950s, McRae got the record contract that launched her career. She was voted best new female vocalist of 1954 by DownBeat magazine. MacRae married twice: to drummer Kenny Clarke from 1944 to 1956, though they separated in 1948; and to bassist Ike Isaacs in the late 1950s. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Among her most interesting recording projects were Mad About The Man (1957) with composer Noël Coward, Boy Meets Girl (1957) with Sammy Davis, Jr., participating in Dave Brubeck's The Real Ambassadors (1961) with Louis Armstrong, a tribute album You're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs) (1983), cutting an album of live duets with Betty Carter, The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (1987), being accompanied by Dave Brubeck and George Shearing, and closing her career with tributes to Thelonious Monk, Carmen Sings Monk (1990), and Sarah Vaughan, Sarah: Dedicated to You (1991).
As a result of her early friendship with Billie Holiday, she never performed without singing at least one song associated with "Lady Day", and she recorded an album in 1983 in her honor entitled For Lady Day, which was released in 1995, with songs including "Good Morning Heartache", "Them There Eyes", "Lover Man", "God Bless the Child" and "Don't Explain". McRae also recorded with some of the world's best jazz musicians in albums such as Take Five Live (1961) with Dave Brubeck, Two for the Road (1980) with George Shearing, and Heat Wave (1982) with Cal Tjader. The latter two albums were part of a notable eight-year relationship with Concord Jazz.
McRae sang in jazz clubs throughout the United States—and across the world—for more than fifty years. She was a popular performer at the Monterey Jazz Festival (1961–63, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1982), performing with Duke Ellington's orchestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1980, singing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1989. She left New York for Southern California in the late 1960s, but appeared in New York regularly, usually at the Blue Note, where she performed two engagements a year through most of the 1980s. In May–June 1988, she collaborated with Harry Connick Jr. on the song "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" (S. Clare & S. Stept) in New York City at the RCA Studios, for Connick's debut album, 20. She withdrew from public performance in May 1991 after an episode of respiratory failure only hours after she completed an engagement at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.
|Carmen McRae Grammy Award Recognitions|
|1971||Best Jazz Performance - Soloist||Carmen McRae||Atlantic||Nominee|
|1977||Best Jazz Vocal Performance||At the Great American Music Hall||Blue Note||Nominee|
|1984||Best Jazz Vocal Performance||You're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs)||Concord Jazz||Nominee|
|1987||Best Jazz Vocal Performance - Female||Any Old Time||Denon||Nominee|
|1988||Best Jazz Vocal Performance - Duo or Group||The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets||Great American Music Hall||Nominee|
|1988||Best Jazz Vocal Performance - Female||Fine and Mellow||Concord Jazz||Nominee|
|1990||Best Jazz Vocal Performance - Female||Carmen Sings Monk||Novus||Nominee|
|Carmen McRae Awards|
|1993||NAACP||NAACP Image Awards||Winner|
|1994||National Endowment for the Arts||NEA Jazz Masters||Winner|
- A Foggy Day with Carmen McCrae (Stardust, 1953)
- Carmen McRae (Bethlehem, 1955)
- By Special Request (Decca, 1956)
- Torchy! (Decca, 1956)
- Blue Moon (Decca, 1956)
- Boy Meets Girl with Sammy Davis Jr. (Decca, 1957)
- After Glow (Decca, 1957)
- Mad About the Man - Carmen McRae Sings Noel Coward (Decca, 1958)
- Carmen for Cool Ones (Decca, 1958)
- Birds of a Feather (Decca, 1958)
- Porgy and Bess with Sammy Davis Jr. (Decca, 1959)
- My Foolish Heart (Vocalion, 1969), compilation of Decca recordings
- Book of Ballads (Kapp, 1959)
- When You're Away (Kapp, 1959)
- Performing Music from the Subterraneans by André Previn with Gerry Mulligan, McRae on one track (MGM, 1960)
- Something to Swing About (Kapp, 1960)
- Play Dave Brubeck's Points on Jazz with Gold and Fizdale (Columbia, 1961)
- Tonight Only! with Dave Brubeck (Columbia, 1961)
- Carmen McRae at the Flamingo Jazz Club a.k.a. In London (Ember (UK), 1961)
- Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics (Columbia, 1962)
- Take Five Live with Dave Brubeck (Columbia, 1962)
- The Real Ambassadors (Columbia Masterworks 1962)
- Something Wonderful (Columbia, 1963)
- Live at Sugar Hill San Francisco a.k.a. In Person (Time, 1963)
- Bittersweet (Focus, 1964)
- Second to None (Mainstream, 1964)
- Haven't We Met? (Mainstream, 1965)
- Woman Talk (Mainstream, 1966)
- Alfie (Mainstream, 1966)
- For Once in My Life (Atlantic, 1967)
- Portrait of Carmen (Atlantic, 1968)
- The Sound of Silence (Atlantic, 1968)
- "Live" & Wailing (Mainstream, 1968), recorded 1965
- Just a Little Lovin' (Atlantic, 1970)
- Carmen McRae (Mainstream, 1971), recordings from 1965 and 1966
- Carmen's Gold (Mainstream, 1971)
- Carmen (Temponic, 1972)
- The Great American Songbook: Live at Donte's (Atlantic, 1972)
- Alive! (Mainstream, 1973), compilation of Woman Talk and Live & Wailing
- It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feeling (Groove Merchant, 1973), re-released combined with Ms. Jazz since 1975 as Velvet Soul
- Ms. Jazz (Groove Merchant, 1974)
- As Time Goes By - Carmen McRae Alone, Live at the Dug (Victor, 1974)
- Live and Doin' It (Mainstream, 1974)
- I Am Music (Blue Note, 1975)
- Live at Century Plaza (Atlantic, 1975), recorded 1968
- November Girl with Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band (Black Lion, 1975), recorded 1970
- Can't Hide Love (Blue Note, 1976)
- At the Great American Music Hall (Blue Note, 1977)
- Ronnie Scott's Presents Carmen McRae Live (Pye, 1977)
- Blue Note Meets the L.A. Philharmonic (Blue Note, 1978), four songs by McRae
- Jazz Gala 79 a.k.a. Live at MIDEM (Personal Choice, 1979)
- I'm Coming Home Again (Buddha, 1980)
- Two for the Road with George Shearing (Concord Jazz, 1980)
- Recorded Live at Bubba's (Who's Who in Jazz, 1981)
- Ms. Magic (Accord, 1982), recorded 1978, also on re-release of I'm Coming Home Again, same sessions
- Love Songs (Accord, 1982), like Ms. Magic
- Heat Wave with Cal Tjader (Concord Jazz, 1982)
- I Hear Music with Chris Connor (Affinity, 1983)
- You're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs) (Concord Jazz, 1984)
- Any Old Time (Denon, 1986)
- The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Great American Music Hall, 1988)
- Fine and Mellow: Live at Birdland West (Concord Jazz, 1988)
- Carmen Sings Monk (Novus, 1990), Grammy nominated
- Sarah: Dedicated to You (Novus, 1991)
- New York State of Mind: Live at Bird (Victor (Jp), 1992), recorded 1989
- For Lady Day Volume 1 (Novus, 1995), recorded 1981
- For Lady Day Volume 2 (Novus, 1995), recorded 1981
- Everything Happens to Me (Jazz Hour, 1997), recorded live at Montreux Jazz Festival 1982
- Dream of Life (Qwest, 1998), recorded 1989
- Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport (Verve, 2001), recorded 1958, re-release with McRae
- At Ratso's Volume 1 (Hitchcock Media, 2002), recorded 1976
- At Ratso's Volume 2 (Hitchcock Media, 2002), recorded 1976
- Live at Umbria Jazz (Egea, 2002), recorded live at Umbria Jazz Festival 1990
- Marion McPartland's Piano Jazz (The Jazz Alliance, 2002), recorded 1985
- Last Live in Tokyo (DVD, Nippon Crown, 2004), recorded 1989
- I'm Coming Home Again (Essential Media 2008)
- 1955: The Square Jungle - Herself
- 1960: The Subterraneans - Herself
- 1967: Hotel
- 1986: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling
- 1976: Soul
- 1976: Sammy and Company
- 1979: Carmen McRae in Concert
- 1979: Roots: The Next Generations
- 1980: From Jumpstreet
- 1981: At the Palace
- 1981: Billie Holiday. A Tribute
- 1982: L. A. Jazz
- Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. pp. 826/7. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
- Carmen McRae at AllMusic
- Larkin, Colin, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, p. 2650 (1995). ISBN 1-56159-176-9
- Brian Berger, "Carmen McRae", HiLobrow, April 8, 2015.
- "HOME BIOGRAPHY Grove Dictionary Ms". Carmenmcrae.com.
- "Democrats Hope to Get $6 Million in Telethon". The Washington Post.
- Jazz Forum, No. 2, 1990.
- Kernfeld, Barry (1999). "Clarke, Kenny". American National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1802594.
- Stephen Holden (November 12, 1994). "Carmen McRae Is Dead at 74; Jazz Career Spanned 5 Decades". The New York Times.
- "Carmen McRae Biography". Musicianguide.com.
- "Montreux Jazz Festival". Web.archive.org. Archived from the original on November 9, 2007.
- Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
- "The Envelope: Hollywood's Awards and Industry Insider". Latimes.com.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 27, 2012. Retrieved January 14, 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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